From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871)
Joh 3:1-21. Night Interview of Nicodemus with Jesus.
1, 2. Nicodemus—In this member of the Sanhedrim sincerity and timidity are seen struggling together.
2. came to Jesus by night—One of those superficial "believers" mentioned in Joh 2:23, 24, yet inwardly craving further satisfaction, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in quest of it, but comes "by night" (see Joh 19:38, 39; 12:42); he avows his conviction that He was
come from God—an expression never applied to a merely human messenger, and probably meaning more here—but only as "a teacher," and in His miracles he sees a proof merely that "God is with Him." Thus, while unable to repress his convictions, he is afraid of committing himself too far.
3. Except, &c.—This blunt and curt reply was plainly meant to shake the whole edifice of the man's religion, in order to lay a deeper and more enduring foundation. Nicodemus probably thought he had gone a long way, and expected, perhaps, to be complimented on his candor. Instead of this, he is virtually told that he has raised a question which he is not in a capacity to solve, and that before approaching it, his spiritual vision required to be rectified by an entire revolution on his inner man. Had the man been less sincere, this would certainly have repelled him; but with persons in his mixed state of mind—to which Jesus was no stranger (Joh 2:25)—such methods speed better than more honeyed words and gradual approaches.
a man—not a Jew merely; the necessity is a universal one.
be born again—or, as it were, begin life anew in relation to God; his manner of thinking, feeling, and acting, with reference to spiritual things, undergoing a fundamental and permanent revolution.
cannot see—can have no part in (just as one is said to "see life," "see death," &c.).
the kingdom of God—whether in its beginnings here (Lu 16:16), or its consummation hereafter (Mt 25:34; Eph 5:5).
4. How, &c.—The figure of the new birth, if it had been meant only of Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion, would have been intelligible enough to Nicodemus, being quite in keeping with the language of that day; but that Jews themselves should need a new birth was to him incomprehensible.
5. of water and of the Spirit—A twofold explanation of the "new birth," so startling to Nicodemus. To a Jewish ecclesiastic, so familiar with the symbolical application of water, in every variety of way and form of expression, this language was fitted to show that the thing intended was no other than a thorough spiritual purification by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Indeed, element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought together in a glorious evangelical prediction of Ezekiel (Eze 36:25-27), which Nicodemus might have been reminded of had such spiritualities not been almost lost in the reigning formalism. Already had the symbol of water been embodied in an initiatory ordinance, in the baptism of the Jewish expectants of Messiah by the Baptist, not to speak of the baptism of Gentile proselytes before that; and in the Christian Church it was soon to become the great visible door of entrance into "the kingdom of God," the reality being the sole work of the Holy Ghost (Tit 3:5).
6-8. That which is born, &c.—A great universal proposition; "That which is begotten carries within itself the nature of that which begat it" [Olshausen].
flesh—Not the mere material body, but all that comes into the world by birth, the entire man; yet not humanity simply, but in its corrupted, depraved condition, in complete subjection to the law of the fall (Ro 8:1-9). So that though a man "could enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born," he would be no nearer this "new birth" than before (Job 14:4; Ps 51:5).
is spirit—"partakes of and possesses His spiritual nature."
7. Marvel not, &c.—If a spiritual nature only can see and enter the kingdom of God; if all we bring into the world with us be the reverse of spiritual; and if this spirituality be solely of the Holy Ghost, no wonder a new birth is indispensable.
Ye must—"Ye, says Jesus, not we" [Bengel]. After those universal propositions, about what "a man" must be, to "enter the kingdom of God" (Joh 3:5)—this is remarkable, showing that our Lord meant to hold Himself forth as "separate from sinners."
8. The wind, &c.—Breath and spirit (one word both in Hebrew and Greek) are constantly brought together in Scripture as analogous (Job 27:3; 33:4; Eze 37:9-14).
canst not tell, &c.—The laws which govern the motion of the winds are even yet but partially discovered; but the risings, failings, and change in direction many times in a day, of those gentle breezes here referred to, will probably ever be a mystery to us: So of the operation of the Holy Ghost in the new birth.
9, 10. How, &c.—Though the subject still confounds Nicodemus, the necessity and possibility of the new birth is no longer the point with him, but the nature of it and how it is brought about [Luthardt]. "From this moment Nicodemus says nothing more, but has sunk unto a disciple who has found his true teacher. Therefore the Saviour now graciously advances in His communications of truth, and once more solemnly brings to the mind of this teacher in Israel, now become a learner, his own not guiltless ignorance, that He may then proceed to utter, out of the fulness of His divine knowledge, such farther testimonies both of earthly and heavenly things as his docile scholar may to his own profit receive" [Stier].
10. master—"teacher." The question clearly implies that the doctrine of regeneration is so far disclosed in the Old Testament that Nicodemus was culpable in being ignorant of it. Nor is it merely as something that should be experienced under the Gospel that the Old Testament holds it forth—as many distinguished critics allege, denying that there was any such thing as regeneration before Christ. For our Lord's proposition is universal, that no fallen man is or can be spiritual without a regenerating operation of the Holy Ghost, and the necessity of a spiritual obedience under whatever name, in opposition to mere mechanical services, is proclaimed throughout all the Old Testament.
11-13. We speak that we know, and … have seen—that is, by absolute knowledge and immediate vision of God, which "the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father" claims as exclusively His own (Joh 1:18). The "we" and "our" are here used, though Himself only is intended, in emphatic contrast, probably, with the opening words of Nicodemus, "Rabbi, we know.", &c.
ye receive not, &c.—referring to the class to which Nicodemus belonged, but from which he was beginning to be separated in spirit.
12. earthly things—such as regeneration, the gate of entrance to the kingdom of God on earth, and which Nicodemus should have understood better, as a truth even of that more earthly economy to which he belonged.
heavenly things—the things of the new and more heavenly evangelical economy, only to be fully understood after the effusion of the Spirit from heaven through the exalted Saviour.
13. no man hath ascended, &c.—There is something paradoxical in this language—"No one has gone up but He that came down, even He who is at once both up and down." Doubtless it was intended to startle and constrain His auditor to think that there must be mysterious elements in His Person. The old Socinians, to subvert the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, seized upon this passage as teaching that the man Jesus was secretly caught up to heaven to receive His instructions, and then "came down from heaven" to deliver them. But the sense manifestly is this: "The perfect knowledge of God is not obtained by any man's going up from earth to heaven to receive it—no man hath so ascended—but He whose proper habitation, in His essential and eternal nature, is heaven, hath, by taking human flesh, descended as the Son of man to disclose the Father, whom He knows by immediate gaze alike in the flesh as before He assumed it, being essentially and unchangeably 'in the bosom of the Father'" (Joh 1:18).
14-16. And as Moses, &c.—Here now we have the "heavenly things," as before the "earthly," but under a veil, for the reason mentioned in Joh 3:12. The crucifixion of Messiah is twice after this veiled under the same lively term—"uplifting," Joh 8:28; 12:32, 33. Here it is still further veiled—though to us who know what it means, rendered vastly more instructive—by reference to the brazen serpent. The venom of the fiery serpents, shooting through the veins of the rebellious Israelites, was spreading death through the camp—lively emblem of the perishing condition of men by reason of sin. In both cases the remedy was divinely provided. In both the way of cure strikingly resembled that of the disease. Stung by serpents, by a serpent they are healed. By "fiery serpents" bitten—serpents, probably, with skin spotted fiery red [Kurtz]—the instrument of cure is a serpent of brass or copper, having at a distance the same appearance. So in redemption, as by man came death, by Man also comes life—Man, too, "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Ro 8:3), differing in nothing outward and apparent from those who, pervaded by the poison of the serpent, were ready to perish. But as the uplifted serpent had none of the venom of which the serpent-bitten people were dying, so while the whole human family were perishing of the deadly wound inflicted on it by the old serpent, "the Second Man," who arose over humanity with healing in His wings, was without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. In both cases the remedy is conspicuously displayed; in the one case on a pole, in the other on the cross, to "draw all men unto Him" (Joh 12:32). In both cases it is by directing the eye to the uplifted Remedy that the cure is effected; in the one case the bodily eye, in the other the gaze of the soul by "believing in Him," as in that glorious ancient proclamation—"Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth," &c. (Isa 45:22). Both methods are stumbling to human reason. What, to any thinking Israelite, could seem more unlikely than that a deadly poison should be dried up in his body by simply looking on a reptile of brass? Such a stumbling-block to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness was faith in the crucified Nazarene as a way of deliverance from eternal perdition. Yet was the warrant in both cases to expect a cure equally rational and well grounded. As the serpent was God's ordinance for the cure of every bitten Israelite, so is Christ for the salvation of every perishing sinner—the one however a purely arbitrary ordinance, the other divinely adapted to man's complicated maladies. In both cases the efficacy is the same. As one simple look at the serpent, however distant and however weak, brought an instantaneous cure, even so, real faith in the Lord Jesus, however tremulous, however distant—be it but real faith—brings certain and instant healing to the perishing soul. In a word, the consequences of disobedience are the same in both. Doubtless many bitten Israelites, galling as their case was, would reason rather than obey, would speculate on the absurdity of expecting the bite of a living serpent to be cured by looking at a piece of dead metal in the shape of one—speculate thus till they died. Alas! is not salvation by a crucified Redeemer subjected to like treatment? Has the offense of the cross" yet ceased? (Compare 2Ki 5:12).
16. For God so loved, &c.—What proclamation of the Gospel has been so oft on the lips of missionaries and preachers in every age since it was first uttered? What has sent such thrilling sensations through millions of mankind? What has been honored to bring such multitudes to the feet of Christ? What to kindle in the cold and selfish breasts of mortals the fires of self-sacrificing love to mankind, as these words of transparent simplicity, yet overpowering majesty? The picture embraces several distinct compartments: "The World"—in its widest sense—ready "to perish"; the immense "Love of God" to that perishing world, measurable only, and conceivable only, by the gift which it drew forth from Him; THE Gift itself—"He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son," or, in the language of Paul, "spared not His own Son" (Ro 8:32), or in that addressed to Abraham when ready to offer Isaac on the altar, "withheld not His Son, His only Son, whom He loved" (Ge 22:16); the Fruit of this stupendous gift—not only deliverance from impending "perdition," but the bestowal of everlasting life; the MODE in which all takes effect—by "believing" on the Son. How would Nicodemus' narrow Judaism become invisible in the blaze of this Sun of righteousness seen rising on "the world" with healing in His wings! (Mal 4:2).
17-21. not to condemn, &c.—A statement of vast importance. Though "condemnation" is to many the issue of Christ's mission (Joh 3:19), it is not the object of His mission, which is purely a saving one.
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